As a history play, Henry IV Part 1’s plot covers a specific historical struggle for the English throne. In this sense, it asks a limited question about the right to be king: do King Henry and Prince Hal or do Hotspur and the rebels have the most legitimate right to rule England? Over the course of the play, each side lays out its case as a complicated series of historical claims, victories, and inheritances: King Henry explains his case to Prince Hal at great length in Act 3 scene 2 when Hal makes peace with his father. Hotspur, in turn, explains his case often, ranting about “this canker, Bolingbroke” (King Henry’s name before he took the throne) to Worcester and Northumberland and elaborating his own family’s right to King Henry’s glory.
Yet, as a piece of literature, Shakespeare’s play also asks deep, universal questions about the right to the throne and about what makes a good king. Although it was historically accurate that King Henry, Prince Hal (Henry Prince of Wales), and Hotspur (Henry Percy) shared a name, Shakespeare uses this fact to the play’s literary advantage: the three Henrys each illustrate a different way of being king and the contrast between them prompts the audience to consider what qualities are best embodied by a monarch. King Henry is sober, wise, and deeply aware of the cost of warfare. He tries hard to temper Hotspur’s warmongering ferocity with attempts to negotiate peace. Hotspur is impressively courageous, but the negative parts of his character end up cancelling out the positive ones: he is so proud it makes him foolhardy, and he rages into battle, underestimates Prince Hal, and winds up killed by play’s end. Of the three Henrys, Prince Hal ultimately seems the most agile ruler. Even when he acts like a light-hearted teenager, Hal remains a keen reader of human character, an unpretentious friend to Englishmen of every class, and a persuasive orator. Later, when he abandons his partying antics before the Battle of Shrewsbury, his mature intelligence shines even brighter. He ultimately shows himself to be every inch the brilliant, eloquent king that will be featured in Henry V.
The Right to be King ThemeTracker
The Right to be King Quotes in Henry IV Part 1
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood;
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile places...
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,
No more shall cut his master.
…thou mak’st me sad and mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride—
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him
See riot and dishnor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
But shall it be that you, that set the crown
Upon the head of this forgetful man
And for his sake wear the detested blot
Of murderous subornation, shall it be,
That you a world of curses undergo,
Being the agents, or base second means,
The cords, the ladder, or the hangman rather?
…the King hath sent to know
The nature of your griefs; and whereupon
You conjure them from the breast of civil peace
Such bold hostility, teaching his duteous land
Audacious cruelty. If that the King
Have any way your good deserts forgot,
Which he confesseth to be manifold,
He bids you name your griefs; and with all speed
You shall have your desires with interest,
And pardon absolute for yourself and these
Herein misled by your suggestion.
Disgraced me in my happy victories,
Sought to entrap me by intelligence,
Rated mine uncle from the council board,
In rage dismissed my father from the court,
Broke oath on oath, committed wrong on wrong,
And in conclusion drove us to seek out
This head of safety, and withal to pry
Into his title, the which we find
Too indirect for long continuance.
These things, indeed, you have articulate,
Proclaim’d at market-crosses, read in churches,
To face the garment of rebellion
With some fine colour that may please the eye
Of fickle changelings and poor discontents,
Which gape and rub the elbow at the news
Of hurly-burly innovation:
And never yet did insurrection want
Such water-colours to impaint his cause
Ill-spirited Worcester, did not we send grace,
Pardon, and terms of love to all of you?
And wouldst thou turn our offers contrary,
Misuse the tenor of thy kinsman’s trust?
Three knights upon our party slain today,
A noble earl, and many a creature else
Had been alive this hour,
If like a Christian thou hadst truly borne
Betwixt our armies true intelligence.